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Evidence and Expectations: Knowing the Limits of Available Data for Book of Mormon Archaeology

One thing I frequently here when talking to people about Book of Mormon evidence is that the lack of archaeological evidence in the New World is totally and completely damning for the Book of Mormon. Scholars should have found Book of Mormon cities, they’ll say. Civilizations just don’t disappear, they’ll insist. Of course, when asked, very few of them can (a) define the epistemological methods by which they have determined the lack of evidence, or (b) tell me much of anything intelligent about Mesoamerica or the state of Mesoamerican archaeology. These are not trivial issues. It should be self-evident that without knowing how to define and evaluate evidence, and knowing nothing about the dataset from which evidence may (or may not) be gleaned, it is impossible to really know whether there is or isn’t any evidence, and just what that evidence may or may not entail.

Mark A. Wright, a fairly new PhD in anthropology (specializing in Mesoamerican archaeology), has written an article that helps address the second of these two issues. It is not on the Book of Mormon at all, but rather provides an overview of Mesoamerica for a lay audience. In it, Wright makes these revealing remarks about the state of Mesoamerican archaeology:
Literally thousands of archaeological sites dot the Mesoamerican landscape, the vast majority of which we know virtually nothing about, other than their locations. In the Maya area alone are approximately six thousand known sites, of which fewer than fifty have undergone systematic archaeological excavation. Classic period sites have traditionally been the focus of excavations, while Preclassic/Formative sites have largely been ignored by archaeologists and looters alike since the artifacts tend to be less valuable or exciting. Likewise, archaeologists have always had a bias toward excavating large capital cities that are known to have large temples, palaces, tombs, and monumental inscriptions while neglecting small or even medium-sized settlements. Archaeologists estimate that less than 1 percent of ancient Mesoamerican ruins have been uncovered and studied, leaving much yet to learn.
In a personal communication to me and a friend of mine, Wright further explained, “of those 6,000 or so known Maya sites, we only know the ancient names of about a dozen of them, which leaves roughly 5,988 sites whose names are simply lost to history. And that’s just from the Maya area, to say nothing of the rest of Mesoamerica.”

Read all of that again and then take a breath as you think through the implications. We know “virtually nothing” of the vast majority of thousands of Mesoamerican sites! Less than 50 of 6,000 Mayan sites have been excavated, and only about 12 of those have a known pre-Columbian name! Less than 1% of ruins have been uncovered! And the focus has been on Classic-era (AD 200–900) sites, which generally post-date Book of Mormon times.

These facts make it absurd to insist that we “should” have found Zarahemla (or any other Book of Mormon city) by now. Based on the numbers given above, any given Book of Mormon city is more likely to be unexcavated than excavated. Given how limited our knowledge is, we are extremely fortunate to have highly plausible candidates for Zarahemla (Santa Rosa) and Nephi (Kaminaljuyu), and a handful of other Book of Mormon cities. And we haven’t even mentioned, here, the various complications (some of which I have discussed elsewhere) that make identifying distinctly Nephite or Lamanite remains difficult, if not impossible. This alone speaks to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, in my opinion. It seems extremely unlikely that strong candidates for fictional cities would be found among such a small sample size (the less-than-1% of known ruins).


  1. This is the same conclusion I came away with from reading Charles C. Mann's book 1491. There were so many cultures and peoples and sites throughout Central and South America that we know close to nothing. Thanks for a great post.

    J. Max Wilson


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